Israel’s Ambassador to Nigeria Micheal Freeman in this exclusive interview with PREMIUM TIMES talks about how his country’s drip technology can enhance rice production in Nigeria. He also speaks about many other issues including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
PT: What is the Innovation Fair (I-Fair) in Nigeria about?
Mr Freeman: The I-Fair programme is for innovators and entrepreneurs from Nigeria. We have run two in the past and we are now starting our third one. The actual programme is a six-month programme. We just launched in June, it will run all the way through to the end of the year in December. We take primarily young Nigerians who are innovators, entrepreneurs, who have an idea and have got an early-stage business plan that they want to take through and what we do is, we bring across mentors from Israel, we bring mentors from Nigeria, people who understand the space here and all of the different spaces they have and we work with them for six months. Then at the end of that, we expose them to finance and we expose them to the opportunities for investment and we expose them to market and all sorts of different things so that they can then go out.
The idea of the programme is to start to create a young, innovative, entrepreneurial Nigerian class that will start the manufacturing of products here; so we can start to build an economic base within Nigeria or grow the economic base. How successful it has been, is all relative. We think it has been very, very successful. And what do I mean by very successful? The graduates so far have succeeded in bringing in millions of dollars of investment from outside of Nigeria into Nigeria. They are creating products, they are providing work.
We believe that we have created hundreds of extra jobs so far, and we believe we have developed thousands of extra jobs here. We will start to create increased income and we will start to create a base. And so I think it has been a very successful project and we are looking at how we can expand it and how we can bring more young Nigerians into this realm.
PT: You said you have created jobs. Can you help me understand what that means?
Mr Freeman: Yes. So I am saying we have helped develop and create, we believe, hundreds if not thousands of jobs. So there are, for example, somebody came along with an idea, the idea that they then work with our team and develop, and then after that, they received $3 million of funding, and through that $3 million of funding they have had to bring in extra 40 or 50 people to start working on the product. The manufacturing is being done here, so that has created extra jobs.
So we know that the actual companies we work with have created hundreds of jobs and through the expansion into the economy, that will in turn create many more jobs that will lead to, we believe, thousands of jobs. And as we expand over the year, we hope that I-Fair 4, which we will commit to, will be able to grow, and we are working with Nigerian partners, with the TETFund and the government. It is a true partnership programme.
PT: Let us do the numbers. How many companies or how many people have benefited from this programme?
Mr Freeman: So the exact number without the I-Fair 3, we have taken about 80 to 90 different companies through. In the new I-Fair, we are working on 25 different companies, and each company has three or four people that we work with to do that.
We have chosen to keep it small for a very clear reason, which is if you want to be able to give people the real, proper mentoring capabilities, and the mentoring facilities, then you need to make sure that you have got a small enough group that they can learn together, and you would not want to go to a class of 300 people. So that is why we are going in that number.
By December, innovators would have gone through the mentoring programme and will have the opportunity to pitch to some funders, and they will also have the opportunity to show people what they have achieved, and to also get media access so they can start to sell their products.
PT: What kind of innovations do participants typically come up with?
Mr Freeman: We said we want to focus on agriculture, healthcare, climate change, and food supply. So those have been the key areas.
PT: Let’s move to something else. There was a revelation by Cambridge Analytics that some Isrealis meddled in Nigerian elections. Are you aware of that?
Mr Freeman: I saw the reports like you did. It was covered very widely also in Israel. By the way, they were talking about an Israeli individual. As you know, not every country controls every one of its citizens, its citizens can do all sorts of different things. But the message from us is very clear, we do not get involved in anybody’s elections. Democracy is a democracy, and it’s for the Nigerian people to be involved, to decide their future. And we certainly condemn any outside involvement in elections and any outside meddling… we’re very clear on that.
PT: Has Israel done its own investigation into this and are there actions that are going to be taken?
Mr Freeman: My understanding is that if stuff was done that broke the law, that will be investigated by the Israeli authorities where it is relevant.
PT: Israeli technology is used in different parts of the world for surveillance. Are you concerned about the usage?
Mr Freeman: Israeli technology is used all over the world, as you know, and cyber is something that is also utilised and used wherever. And I think when you look at what happens with cyber and what happens with technology, you also need to understand the good that is done by that. Our entire lives are online today. Everything is done through technology. This very programme is done online. It is Israeli technology that stops those programmes from being hacked, it makes sure that critical infrastructure is protected.
We know that army and police and healthcare and all of those systems are all protected by Israeli cyber systems. So we are very proud of the Israeli cyber work that we do, the very protection that we do, that when it comes to terrorism and when it comes to people who want to cause damage those surveillance techniques are very, very important. If someone is going to come and kill you, it is good to know where they are and where to, in order to stop them.
Unfortunately, sometimes that is misused and abused by people. We know that all around the world, individuals can abuse these. But I want to really focus on the positive and the amazing difference that Israeli cyber is doing and keeping us all safe. The fact that we’re sitting here, the fact that we are able to do what we want to do. Democracy is critical. Democracy is fundamental. Israel’s a democratic state. We are a very strong democratic state. We believe in democracy, we encourage democracy and so anything that we can do to aid democracy rather than cause it problems is something that we are in favour of.
PT: The Pegasus question and Amnesty International investigation have shown how this has affected life. Has Israel thought about how much damage this is causing it in terms of public perception? Are you thinking to sanction or to put measures in place to serve as deterrence for others?
Mr Freeman: I know that there are conversations taking place. I am not gonna go into the details of those conversations that are taking place. We know the concerns. We are equally concerned by people who would undermine democracy or utilise tools in order to prevent democracy in any way whatsoever. The government would certainly be looking to make sure that that is not used in that way. What we are focused on, as I said to you, is using cyber in a positive way to protect and to defend people.
PT: A new legislation of your parliament on preaching and evangelism in Israel has been of interest to Nigerians, a lot of whom go to Israel on pilgrimage. Evangelism is big in Nigeria, as you may have seen. How would the law affect them?
Mr Freeman: First of all, we need to get through what is fake news and what is not. There is no law that is being passed or going to be passed in any way limiting Christian freedom or anything else in Israel. It is a story and it is not true. I want to be very clear that we have total freedom of religion. You are allowed to practise your religion; Jerusalem is the home to the three monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. All have holy places and all are allowed to go there.
I was recently in Israel with a group of Nigerians, with a Nigerian businessman and with some other people, and we went to the Wailing Wall, the holy site for Jews, we went up to the Temple Mount, the Haram al-Sharif, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and Christians and Muslims and Jews are able to freely practise their religions as they want, how they want, in any way whatsoever.
We need to be very clear on it, there are no laws to restrict, and we welcome tourists. I would say, this is the place where Christians can come, where evangelical Christians can come and walk on the same ground that Jesus walked on 2,000 years ago. And when I say the same ground, there are the same pieces of stone on the ground where Jesus walked. You can go and literally tread in his footsteps. You can go where Muhammad went up to, when he went up to heaven. These you can all go to. It is really important for us, and we will always continue to have freedom of religion because it is a fundamental tenet, a fundamental belief of who we are.
PT: The news says the legislation will stop people from trying to convert or preach. Is that the case?
Mr Freeman: So look, as a country, you have to understand the Jewish people’s history. The Jewish people have not had a homeland for 2,000 years and part of that is that we are a Jewish homeland, we are the homeland for the Jewish people as well as for other people as well. And we welcome everybody to come to our country. But obviously we do not want people coming in and trying to convert the Jews to become Christians or to convert the Muslims to become Christians, the Muslims to convert the Christians or the Jews to convert the Muslims because it just creates a point of conflict.
So for us, it is very important that we have a country where everybody has freedom of religion, so everybody will be free to have their own religion. And what we do not want to do is create tension and to create conflict by people saying, why are you trying to convert? And it works across the board everywhere. So that is where we are at and what we are trying to do.
This is not about any limiting of anybody’s rights or freedom. If someone wants to come on holiday, they can come on holiday; if you want to preach to the people you brought with you, you will absolutely preach to the people. If you want to give a lesson about what is going on you will give a lesson, if you want to hear somebody giving a preach, you can absolutely preach in Israel and there’s no law that’s going to stop it.
PT: Is this for visitors and strictly to the people you bring with you?
Mr Freeman: No, it is across in Israel. Anybody is allowed to preach and they are allowed as long as you are not preaching hatred and you are not trying to preach to kill people, you can preach what you like as religious people.
PT: Protests over judicial reforms are currently going on in Israel. Why does the government want to hand over some powers of the judiciary to parliament?
Mr Freeman: So there is currently a debate, as you said in Israel, about the judiciary. Israel is 75 years old and one of the questions is the balance between the different arms of the state. And one of the questions is whether or not the judiciary should have some form of reform. Primarily that has to do with the number of cases that are going through the court, the makeup of the judges, how it works, what checks and balances there are. And there is a debate going on and there is a very wide, varied debate in the country and you should know that there is a consensus that some form of reform need to take place within the judicial system, whether that is little bit, bigger bit, whatever else it might be.
Currently, there is a very active debate and so you are seeing protests. You are seeing protests in favour of judicial reform, you are seeing protests against judicial reform, and those protests are ongoing. And it is actually an incredible sign of our healthy democracy that anybody can protest whenever they want and know that it is okay to protest, whether you are in favour, you are against, or however it might be. There is a current discussion going on and we are seeing democracy in action.
PT: Do you believe in the independence of the judiciary?
Mr Freeman: Absolutely!
PT: Some parts of the new proposal want the parliament to be able to elect judges. And so the question of independence comes in and there is also the reasonability question for the judiciary. Can you speak to these issues?
Mr Freeman: Certainly, the issue about judges is how are judges appointed and how are judges selected and what role? You know, if you look at America, America has hearings for their judges. Their judges are appointed by the president and they have to go through the parliament. We do not have a system like that. But there are certainly systems around the world that you can look at in order to have a conversation on what the best way is in order to appoint judges and to have independent judges.
No one is saying the judges will not be independent. The judges will still be independent, the question is what is the best way to appoint them in order for us to have a court that more represents the dynamic of the people within the country so that there is equal representation? So, that’s the real question that is going on.
In terms of the question of reasonability, it is a complicated legal issue to do with ways the court can make decisions about government decisions. There are certain aspects that they have decided over reasonableness that they now can review based on the reasonable stuff. It does not mean you cannot review them for being illegal or for being problematic… so it is a small change that is taking place and now there is a wider conversation about what further changes should happen.
PT:What is your personal opinion on the proposed reforms?
Mr Freeman: My opinion is that I am happy to be in a country where you have a democracy where two sides can get up and have a discussion about it. What Michael Freeman thinks about it, is irrelevant because what is really important is this is a democracy where everybody can have their view. That I know that whatever my view is, I can express it when I am in Israel, when it comes to the ballot box, I can vote in that way, I can vote because I support the government, I can vote against the government and regardless of what I do, I can still be an Israeli diplomat and I can still be an Israeli ambassador because it does not matter if I support the government or I do not support the government. If I voted for them or I do not vote for them because we are a thriving democracy.
PT: Do you think that a written constitution, a document would help the situation?
Mr Freeman: We do not have a written constitution. It is a huge debate within the country about whether we should have one. There are many arguments that say yes, many arguments say no. There was a fascinating theory I read recently that said, in order to have a constitution, you need to have a very special moment in time because in order to get everybody together, ready to write and to agree on what that constitution is, is very, very difficult.
America managed it because they had a very specific point in time. If you tried now to write the American constitution, you probably would struggle because you would not be able to get the consensus and I think that in Israel, to have a constitution would be difficult to get consensus on the level that you would need in order to do that. So there are arguments in favour, there are arguments against, and then there is the practicality of it.
PT: The Palestine question. I want you to speak on the issues including the two states conversation. At what point would that be honoured?
Mr Freeman: We want peace. I am a father of two young boys, there is nothing that I want more than for my kids to grow up and not have to go to the army, for them to be able to have peace, for us to be able to have peace with our neighbours. In order to do that, we need to have neighbours that are willing to live side by side with us as a Jewish state and not attempt to kill us and not fire rockets at us and not try and blow us up and not carry out terrorist attacks. No state in the world would accept people firing rockets. No state would accept people trying to attack you, trying to kill you.
So when the Palestinians are ready and they are open to having a conversation with us and us staying there as a Jewish state, then I believe we can solve this problem.
PT: When you talk about rockets and shelling, what is happening in Syria? Is this not the same scenario of what Israel is doing in Syria?
Mr Freeman: According to foreign reports, Syria, we have seen over the last number of years, has massacred its own people and killed its own people, and Iran, which is the biggest destabilising force in the entire Middle East, and we should not forget that, anywhere there is a problem, you will find the Iranians there destabilising the area.
Iran is currently trying to move large numbers of weapons, large numbers of missiles, explosives, large numbers of other very dangerous weapons from Iran via Syria into Lebanon to destabilise Lebanon and to give this to Hezbollah, the terror organisation in Lebanon. And when Iran is moving those amounts of rockets and those amounts of terror infrastructure then certainly, according to the reports, Israel is taking action in order to stop it.
I would say that destroying a rocket and destroying a missile before it is fired on your children and on your families and on your women is certainly not the same as somebody firing that rocket on you.
PT: Is this not trying to shift blame and then change narrative to make Israel look like a victim, whereas Israel is the perpetrator?
Mr Freeman: You know, in the Gaza Strip, we forget Israel left. Israel pulled out every single one of its soldiers, pulled out every single one of the people living there. We destroyed all of our houses. We brought every single one of our citizens out in a disengagement plan.
We said to the Palestinians, here is Gaza and Jericho, we gave Jericho as well and said, if you are interested in having peace, show that you can have peace, show that you can build, you can build a society and if you do that, then we can expand it and move on and the
Palestinians, instead of deciding in Gaza, instead of deciding to move on, they are ruled now by Hamas, a radical Islamist terror organisation. And instead of moving to have peace and to have a better life with us, they fire rockets and they fire missiles and they launch suicide bombers and they try and attack us.
We did what we could do. We disengaged from Gaza; a very difficult, controversial decision within Israel in order to live, in order to try and bring a better situation and we got rockets and we got terrorism in response. So, you know, if the Palestinians are serious and they stop their terrorism and they stop the rockets, then I am convinced that we can have a political solution which will be better for all of us.
PT: Is this your own thing or this is something the Israel state thinks about and say, we are ready to come to the table to revisit the two states conversation again?
Mr Freeman: Israel has been very clear. Well, we want to have a better future, we want to come to a peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians. There is no question, that is a very clear message.
And in order to do that, we need the Palestinians to say, they are willing for Israel to exist as a Jewish state. It is all very well saying we will sit down with you but if the end game is my destruction, there is not much of a conversation to have with them. If the end of that conversation is what Hamas says… Hamas says they want the end of the Jewish state, they want the end of Israel. No one is willing to sit and say, we are willing to have an Israeli Jewish state there.
PT: An Al Jazeera journalist was killed by Israeli forces and Israel has refused to cooperate with an international investigation of the incident. Why?
Mr Freeman: Absolutely! You know, when you are a journalist, and you know this more than I, and you go to cover areas sometimes when you go into war zones which by definition is a difficult area. And certainly if you are covering a firefight between an army and a bunch of terrorists and you are shooting in every direction and there is gunfire going on, it is a difficult and scary situation and certainly when the people that you are fighting against are wearing civilian clothes and they are hiding amongst civilian populations and they are shooting from within schools or from within hospitals, or they are using children as human shields, it becomes a difficult area.
The Aljazeera journalist was covering that gunfight and was shot and killed and from our internal investigations, we have said we think it was likely that it was an Israeli soldier that killed her by accident. That accidents happen in times of war and conflict and we are terribly sorry.
Journalism is critical, it is a fundamental part of democracy and of freedom and we want journalists to be able to cover and to continue. Unfortunately, as we see in any war zone, journalists unfortunately can be killed no matter what the best intentions are of anybody. If there are two people fighting and shooting, sometimes somebody can get caught in the crossfire, especially when one side is deliberately hiding as a bunch of civilians.
PT: Are you into any form of assistance to Nigeria in agriculture especially within the scope of the climate change conversation and trying to end fossil fuel?
Mr Freeman: We are really excited about the issue of agriculture. Israel is probably the number one leader in the world in agriculture. We are number one in water management as well, in utilising water, recycling water, but also in agriculture.
You know, cherry tomatoes, the small tomatoes? It is an Israeli invention, they came from Israel. If you look at all sorts of different areas that we are working in, such as drip irrigation, which we have just developed in Israel.
In order to grow one kilo of rice it takes 5,000 litres of water, a paddy field, which means you are limited in where you can do it, how you can do it, and what you need. So we have just created a technology that allows you to grow rice using only 1,500 litres of water as opposed to 5,000, and you can grow it anywhere. You do not need a big paddy field or lots of water. You can do it with drip technology. Think about what a game changer that is for countries where rice is a staple food, such as Nigeria.
This means you could grow rice anywhere in the country. We are in conversations already about how we can share that technology. Over the years, we have trained thousands of Nigerians in how to work in technology. We can now produce more products, a greater yield, using less water, using less soil, and yet less space.
You talked about climate change, we are the only country in the world that at the end of the last century had less desert than at the beginning of the century. We are actually turning the desert back. We are literally fighting desertification. And we want to work on the Great Green Wall project.
We want to work with Nigeria on reducing desertification. We are looking at alternative energy, using the sun, you are blessed with the sun all the time here… Natural gas as a transition fuel, we have also got huge natural gas reserves and how we can work together in those areas. There are so many areas that we can work together on agriculture and climate change and on fuel in order to diversify and work together. We believe that together, Nigeria can not only feed Nigeria, it can probably feed all of Africa. And so we want to work with Nigeria and with the Nigerian government, with President Tinubu in order to achieve that.
PT: What kind of responses are you getting from the Nigerian government on these? Are you sensing willingness?
Mr Freeman: Absolutely! In initial conversations with President Tinubu and his government, they have been incredibly positive. We are talking about working together and President Tinubu’s vision of a million jobs in the digital economy. We have got some projects we will be working on with him.
We think that is an amazing vision and we know that we can partner and we can work together on that. We will be partnering on agriculture, on healthcare, on technology, on education, on security as well because of our knowledge and our expertise in security. So we are really excited about the possibility and we are incredibly happy and incredibly blessed by the response of the Nigerian government.
PT: Speak to me about the security partnerships you have with Nigeria
Mr Freeman: I am sure you would like specific details but obviously I am not gonna go into specific details because discretion is also important in this area both for Israel and for Nigeria. But I can tell you that we are having conversations and we are working… What I will say to you is that we are the world leaders, one of the world leaders in cyber. in tackling terrorism, in tackling instability, in intelligence, and in all those areas and those are conversations that we will have with Nigeria, with the Nigerian security services on how we can help to restore security.
We will be led by Nigeria on this. This is not an Israeli-led thing, this is a Nigerian-led programme where any help we can give, any assistance we can give, anyway we can work with Nigeria in order to tackle the insecurity, we are more than happy to do so and we are having those conversations.
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